A couple of weeks ago I had lunch with a friend who also happens to be a historian. The two of us are scheduled to take part in a conference devoted to Robert E. Lee which will take place at the University of Virginia in the fall. I am also tentatively scheduled to take part in a conference on Lee in South Carolina in November – more information once it is confirmed. For this latter conference I was asked to explore African-American perceptions of Lee, which I enthusiastically accepted. As we talked over lunch I suggested some possible ways to start the paper; my idea was to look into the unveiling of the Lee statue in Richmond by exploring the black newspaper, the Richmond Planet. The overall goal of the paper as I am now conceiving of it is to use Lee as a window into black perceptions of the Civil War more generally.
My friend suggested that I think about using the famous incident involving Lee in June 1865 and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond. While Dr. Charles Minnegerode was preparing to administer communion a black man approached leaving the congregation in a state of shock. Lee supposedly remained perfectly calm and proceeded to receive communion next to this black individual. The incident supposedly reflects Lee’s humility and moral superiority at a time when most white Southerners were still dealing with the psychological effects of emancipation and defeat. I realized that this was the perfect example. My friend suggested that I look into the sources behind the story to see if it could even be verified, but I was more interested in shifting the perspective just a bit. As I thought about the story I asked if anyone had looked at it from the perspective of the black man. What was he doing in this particular church and what do his actions symbolize at this volatile moment? It was a rhetorical question since I assumed that no one had looked at the story from this perspective. Regardless, I at least believed that the story would provide a perfect thread from the war to more recent interpretive questions surrounding the apparent lack of interest in the Civil War among black Americans. More importantly, the lack of attention on this black individual could serve as a metaphor for the overall tendency to ignore issues of race and slavery in our popular perceptions of the Civil War. [Check out this earlier post on the attempt to address slavery at Lee’s Arlington.]
The first thing I did when I arrived home was to look for information online. One of the first sites to be listed was a talk presented by historian Philip Schwarz at Stratford Hall back in 2000. It turns out that this talk addressed just the kind of questions that I was now excited to investigate. Schwarz analyzes the evidence for the story which includes a newspaper article published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1905 and an article which appeared in the Confederate Veteran a few months later – both written by one Col. T. L. Broun of Charleston, West Virginia. The article explores Broun’s background, and more importantly, the fact that the two pieces were written as Virginia instituted Jim Crow legislation following the passage of a new constitution. Schwarz reminds the reader that what we are reading is Broun’s interpretation of Lee’s actions forty years earlier. We have nothing that helps us understand how Lee himself viewed the presence of this individual:
And what about Lee’s conduct? So many people tell the story of Lee’s response to the black man’s action as conciliatory and accepting. Perhaps it was, but does Broun? Listen to Broun’s language: Lee, “ignoring the action and presence of the negro,” and with a “lofty conception of duty . . . under such provoking and irritating circumstances” walked to the chancel rail. “By this action of Gen. Lee,” Broun continued, “the services were conducted as if the negro had not been present. It was a grand exhibition of superiority shown by a true Christian and great soldier under the most trying and offensive circumstances.”
What I find so interesting is that Broun does not appear to be interested in Lee’s motivation or the black man. There is no indication that Broun ever interviewed Lee (assuming the incident even took place) and there is no need to discuss the matter with a black man when it is assumed that his actions were reflective of an effort to “inaugurate the ‘new régime’ to offend and humiliate” the worshipers. I think Schwarz is onto something when he suggests that the remembered incident took place when white supremacy was in doubt, but the act of remembering took place once that superiority was ensured through Jim Crow legislation. In short, Broun was using this story as a way of justifying and celebrating Virginia’s recent turn towards legal segregation.
Schwarz’s article is well worth your time. It has given me plenty to think about as I collect material for this project.